Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Some time ago a guarantee was given: “That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Science fiction writers don’t usually give that assurance much credence. Even Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)—serious and sympathetic explorations of religion—aren’t centrally concerned with the survival of the Church. Science fiction’s speculations don’t naturally stray toward ecclesiology’s future tense.

Yet three notable works of science fiction do address themselves to the power of that old promise against the secular infinitudes of time and space: Cordwainer Smith’s “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” (1964), John Morressy’s The Mansions of Space (1983), and R. A. Lafferty’s Past Master (1968). These novels share a Christian preoccupation—a theological preoccupation—with the survival of faith threatened sometimes by oblivion, sometimes by annihilation, and sometimes indeed by the gates of hell.

The three fables vary on an important particular. The survival of faith may or may not be identical with the survival of the Church—and the difference between broadly Christian and specifically Catholic science fiction may be measured by the varying interest in the Church’s survival. So Smith’s “Dead Lady” tells of the miraculous revival of Christian faith, sine ecclesia, and it is no surprise to discover that Smith was a China specialist who shifted toward a denominationally fuzzy Christianity late in life. Morressy’s Mansions makes the survival of a quasi-Catholic Church an important theme of his book, and Morressy was a devout Catholic. Lafferty’s Past Master makes the survival of the Church itself central, and Lafferty was fervently, even flamboyantly Catholic.

Science fiction’s ambition to evoke the immensely long and strange history of the future gives these three works peculiar power to meditate on the promise that the Church will survive. It also foregrounds the question of how the Church will survive, if it survives. Smith posits an inspired rebirth of faith, Morressy the providential arrangements of human desire and action, and Lafferty the power of sacrificial miracle. In other words, all answer by highlighting the role of divine action in history, whether to sustain the Church or to revive faith by some other means. The Church, and faith, do not depend for their survival on human efforts alone.

Stripped to its essence, this insight is not news. Yet it is a lesson always worth revisiting—and perhaps more urgent than ever, given the Church’s current vicissitudes. “Dead Lady,” Mansions, and Past Master convey an old lesson with new beauty and power.

Cordwainer Smith’s “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” begins in a time when Christianity is no longer even a name, since the Church expired in the ancient, unknown past. Perhaps ten thousand years from now, a dog girl named D’Joan leads a revolution of animal underpeople against mankind. She leads the revolution “In the name … of the First Forgotten One, in the name of the Second Forgotten One, in the name of the Third Forgotten One.” The revolution is brief—“six minutes and covered one hundred twelve meters.” The underpeople rise up out of Clown Town, shouting love to all the humans they meet: “Dear people, we are people. We love you. … We are your sisters and your brothers.”

But in a few minutes the rebellion is over, suppressed by human soldiers. D’Joan comes before the tribunal of the Lords of the Instrumentality of Mankind and gives testimony. “There is knowledge from Earth which you have not found again,” says Joan. “There is the name of the nameless one.” But the Lords decide that D’Joan is a bad dog who must be put down—burnt to death. D’Joan prophesies, “If you light a fire today, my Lord, it will never be put out in the hearts of men.” And in the fullness of time, D’Joan’s rebellion does bring about the liberation of the animal people—although that tale is told in another story.

D’Joan is Martin Luther King, Jr., Joan of Arc, and Jesus, and hers is another recapitulation of the Christian story of redeeming love proffered to cruelty, indifference, and force. But hers also is a tale of Christianity forgotten. The old faith returns by weird miracle to animals. The promise “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” is revised to include the proviso, “for more than an aeon.” As Cordwainer Smith’s faith was not precisely orthodox, neither is his jubilant vision.

John Morressy’s The Mansions of Space begins with a free trader named Jod Enskeline landing on Peter’s Rock, a quasi-Catholic world settled around the Monastery of the Holy Sepulcher. Enskeline discovers that schismatics took the planet’s one starship a century before and left—and took with them the Shroud of Turin. He is seized with the desire to find the Shroud, for the vast reward the monks will give for its return.

Enskeline searches through space and falls sick on the planet Huttoi. Dying alone, “He thought of the missionaries’ god, that god of healing and forgiving, and with failing breath he called upon his name.” Enskeline rises from his sickbed as the Pilgrim, his worldly ambitions stripped from him, seized with the mission to gather all races to search for the Shroud. Enskeline brings the word of God to the aliens of Huttoi: “a strange creature from a despised and unimportant subject race, had burst upon them with a message that glorified his kind.” He forges peace between the aliens and humans of Huttoi, unites them to this new mission, and departs with a multiracial crew into unknown space, in search of the Shroud.

Enskeline is pursued by Captain Cormasson of the Sternverein, a trading organization-turned-empire that seeks to bring peace to the galaxy—by subjecting all worlds. Cormasson believes that possession of the Shroud will confer power on the Sternverein. Following Enskeline’s trail, he finds the Shroud on a distant, barren planet, in an empty chapel where the wind tolls the bell. Successful at last, the aged Cormasson sets his course for Peter’s Rock. He arrives too sick to speak coherently, babbles of a searching pilgrim, says that he sought the face of God—and found it. Dying, he tells the monks the Shroud is in his ship—“‘Take it!’” He is buried in the Abbey as the Pilgrim, a man who gave his life to return the Shroud to its home.

Morressy’s Mansions is a tale of the ironies of providence—how God, operating through the desires of secular men who prize wealth and power, brings about the ends of faith. Enskeline’s quest turns even the vastnesses of space and the profound difference of aliens to God’s purposes. The search for the face of God becomes literal, and creates a “fellowship of the stars”—a host of aliens to search for God, to honor him and pray to him. In the end, the universe’s dark strangenesses serve the fragile speck of Peter’s Rock, and the almost-Catholic Church sheltering upon it. The monks of Peter’s Rock sing a Litany of the Crossing: “From the darkness between the worlds, oh Lord deliver us.” He does.

R. A. Lafferty explores a deeper darkness. Past Master tells of Thomas More, brought forward a thousand years to Astrobe—a planet settled from Earth, the inheritor of American civilization. In Astrobe, Programmed People, artificial men, interbreed with humans. Humans are becoming mechanical themselves, in a soulless Utopia where all individuality ends, and that believes in nothing but itself: “While Astrobe is the highest thing there can be nothing higher. This is the essence of the Astrobe dream.” The completion of the Astrobe Dream will bring with it the end of all life, as the Programmed People arrange tidily for humanity’s end.

Their goal is psychotic—naturally, since the Programmed People were made from psychopaths, “a carefully selected collection of walking corpses, large blank pages on which could be printed anything whatsoever.” The tabula rasa man, it turns out, is insane and evil. The Programmed People are also “devils dressed in tin cans,” demons who entered empty souls: “These are houses, and well-made ones, that we found swept and garnished; and we moved into them.” Simultaneously, they are damned souls. “‘Thomas,’ they said. ‘We be souls in agony. What must we do to be saved?’” Utopia is a thin cover for the torments of the damned.

Still, More remains a supporter of the Astrobe Dream—until the Programmed People attempt to execute the last pope, a dying man with a hundred followers. He leads a Church that long ago let itself become a corrupt parody, yet he is a last scrap of the old succession, with the fisherman’s ring upon his finger. “‘You are the last of them?’ asked Thomas. ‘No, I am not the last, Thomas. We have the promise. We last till the end of the world.’” But the Programmed People demand that this final morsel of the Church be destroyed, even though “[t]he thing itself’s about dead.” More refuses. “He took the bill and scribbled in Latin ‘I forbid,’ ‘Veto’ across the face of it.” The authorities of Astrobe execute More, for to insist on such a veto carries the ultimate penalty. They decapitate him—and there is a kindling in imitatio.

The Programmed People begin to cry. One “[s]at on the ground and moaned and howled like an old Hebrew. And poured dust and ashes over his head.” The damned are perhaps redeemed. “The spirit came down once on water and clay. Could it not come down on gell-cells and flux-fix? The sterile wood, whether of human or programmed tree, shall it fruit after all?” The last words of Past Master are “Be quiet. We hope.

Past Master is a tale of necessary martyrdom—the only way to stop the rise of the machines, the soulless, the devils. It is also a tale of necessary miracle: Providence alone will not work. At any rate, Lafferty proffers an old lesson: The devils in human shape can be saved, but only if we are willing to die for our faith.

Lafferty’s parable is also strictly Catholic. The continuity of the Church is the true turning point of the novel. “Where do the people attend mass?” asks More, and no question matters more. The mass is supremely important: “[T]he uncanny miracle came shockingly and vividly alive at the consecration. It was as though the Heavens opened on command and the Spirit came down—which is what happened.” Hope, miracle, and the survival of the Church are inseparably united.

Some time ago a guarantee was given: Smith imagines what follows after its failure, Morressy gives the guarantee a providential underpinning, and Lafferty proclaims it the most important thing in the universe. The three authors share a common meditation on the survival of faith and the Church, and a common focus on the way God’s power works to guarantee those survivals. But their emphases vary considerably. Their common theological concern by no means puts them in theological lockstep.

Perhaps more importantly, the authors’ different emphases give different causes for hope. One can know a guarantee, after all, but not have it in one’s heart; one can know that faith and the Church have survived miraculously in the past, but have no confidence that it will survive in the future. Do you disbelieve that miracles will preserve the Church, as Lafferty depicts? Then Smith gives you the reviving miracle of faith after the Church has foundered. Do you disbelieve in miracles altogether in these latter days? Morressy gives you a providential vision instead, where God’s actions lurk in the passions of the human heart. The divine author will work out the plot, some way or other.

All three works are worth reading for their literary merits—“Dead Lady” and Past Master for their bravura style, and Mansions for its quiet power. But they were written in faith, and the faithful reader will find something more in them. No guarantee was given to Smith, Morressy, or Lafferty—but their works deserve to endure, for some time to come.

David Randall is director of communications at the National Association of Scholars.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles